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Byron Ellsworth Hamann “How to Chronologize with a Hammer”

Hamann, Byron Ellsworth 2016. How to Chronologize with a Hammer, Or, The Myth of Homogeneous, Empty Time. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 261-292.


Trouillot argues that “modernity implies first and foremost a fundamental shift in regimes of historicity, most notably the perception of a past radically different from the present and the perception of a future that becomes both attainable (because secular) and yet indefinitely postponed (because removed from eschatology)” (2003: 38). (264)


However, as Sanjay Subrahmanyam points out more recently, early modern millennial expectations were not unique to the West. They were shared across Eurasia, and can be used as a framework to write “connected histories” of the world from Iberia to India (Subrahmanyam 1997). And beyond. Apocalyptic models of time were also present in the indigenous Americas, where pre-Hispanic ideas about cataclysmic transformation were used to understand the arrival of the Europeans. (265)


Throughout pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, indigenous people conceived of universal history as a series of creations. Each creation was illuminated by its own distinctive sun (Hamann 2002). However, these previous ages of creation were imperfect, and so were destroyed by the gods in world-cleansing cataclysms. Over and over again, on the ruins of old orders, the gods attempted to build a perfect cosmos, finally arriving at the world of the “present.” By depicting a gilded sun rising into the sky in this particular scene, Tlaxcalan artists were suggesting that the promise of Cortés, and the coming of the Europeans, represented the dawning of a new age of creation, one that destroyed imperfect pre-Hispanic social orders and replaced them with a better world (Hamann 2013). In sum, the cultural construction of chronology as eschatology was a global phenomenon in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, not simply a Western one. (265)


Human history since the expulsion from Paradise was therefore a history of degeneration and corruption. As a result, early modern Catholic theories of social transformation were typically premised noton imaginative, progressive schemes for undreamed-of future orders, but on a retrogressive desire to restoresocial models that had (supposedly) once existed in the past, at Creation. (267)


Reduction was an all-encompassing model for early modern change, and reductive strategies were applied to a wide variety of practices in the Old World and the New. Alchemical and metallurgical treatises described the reduction of minerals: methods for restoring them to elemental purity (Biringuccio [1540] 1943: 135; Newman 2006: xiii). Mid-sixteenth-century letters from Spanish spies in England dreamed of the “reduction of England”—that is, the return of Protestant England to the Catholic fold (Froude 1870: 225). Grammars of languages (both European and Native American) “reduced” those languages “to order”—that is, purified them of the corruptions and irregularities that had crept in over the centuries, supposedly restoring them to the relative perfection they possessed when first created after the fall of the tower of Babel. (268)


Perhaps the most famous application of reductive theory in the sixteenth century was the resettlement of indigenous communities in the Americas (Mumford 2012). These resettlements were called reducciones(‘reductions’ in Spanish) because the city, as an ideal type of spatial order, was thought to have been established by God at Creation. Reducing the spaces in which Native Americans lived was a manner of restoring to them an ancient and ideal form intrinsic to human nature. (268)


The reduction of the calendar is a perfect illustration of reductive temporality: the claim that innovation was restoration. At the time of its first creation, the Julian calendar was synchronized with the movements of the sun and moon. Over the centuries, however, this human creation had become corrupted, disjointed from the cycles of natural world. The remedy was a reduction of the calendar—which of course was not really a restorationof the Julian calendar, but rather the promulgation of a new calendar, the Gregorian. (270)


The Catholic reduction of the Julian calendar was, in many places, rejected. As a result, for almost two hundred years the calendrical history of Europe—and its overseas possessions—was fundamentally asynchronous. It was neither homogeneous, nor empty. But this violent European history is, oddly, not really addressed by either Fabian or Trouillot. Fabian, as we saw above, suggests that “universal Time was probably established concretely and politically in the Renaissance.” In contrast, I would say that it was established concretely, in the Gregorian reform project, but hardly politically—indeed, the politics of religion preventeduniversal time from being implemented throughout the balkanized West. (271)


The same Act also (finally) implemented the reduced Gregorian calendar throughout the British Empire, so that the day following September 2, 1752 would not be September 3, but September 14: „The natural day next immediately following the said second day of September shall be called, reckoned, and accounted to be the fourteenth day of September, omitting for that time only the eleven intermediate nominal days of the common calendar; and that the several natural days which shall follow and succeed next after the said fourteenth day of September shall be respectively called, reckoned, and numbered forwards in numerical order from the said fourteenth day of September, according to the order and succession of days now used in the present calendar.“ (273)


Although the working-class “Calendar Riots” of 1752 are a myth invented in the nineteenth century (Poole 1995), this calendric reform was used in Oxfordshire  as political ammunition against its supporters. Propagandistic songs joined antiCatholicism to anti-Semitism in their attacks: clearly, the papal origins of the reformed calendar had not been forgotten. (273)


In other words, it took nearly two hundred years for a Protestant-majority England—and its dominions throughout the world—to accept a papally approved reduction of the calendar. Returning to Fabian and Trouillot, this means that (in European intellectual history) the desacralization of an eschatological model of sacred time from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries took place in paradoxical tandemwith passionate debates over the religious implications of an astronomically correct, yet papally approved, project of calendrical correction. And even in its “Enlightened” Protestant-English-eighteenth-century manifestation, a central concern of calendar reform was timing the feast of Christ’s Resurrection. To speak of this as temporal desacralization seems incorrect. It was instead another conjugation of the sacred. (275)


It was not until Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 1964 printing that the Christian identity of the Gregorian calendar was finally ignored, replaced by a global vision. The entry for Calendarbegins: “a word derived from the Latin kalendae (calends), literally, the day on which the accounts are due. It now refers to an accounting, usually for civil purposes, of days and other divisions of time. The calendar now used for civil purposes throughout the world is called the Gregorian calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in the 16th century” (Encyclopaedia Britannica1964: 4: 611). Thus the Christianis replaced by the civil, throughout the world—and, suggestively, the 1964 printing is also the first to report the myth of Britain’s Calendar Riots as fact […] (276)


In other words, it was not until the final third of the twentieth century that the Gregorian calendar was secularized, and made global, in the pages of Encylopaedia Britannica. It is perhaps no accident that this coincided with a moment of world decolonization—or that Britannica’s initial 1842 claims about the Gregorian calendar’s ecumenical “Christian” identity appeared near the start of the second age of European imperialism, in which Christian missionizations of all kinds were often handmaidens to colonization (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991; Stocking 1991). None of which means that relations between sacred and temporal imaginations did not change across the centuries from 1500 to 1900: clearly they did (Burke 1966: 77–104; Fasolt 2004; Nagel and Wood 2010). Rather, my point is that temporal secularization, like the concept of the secular itself, is much stranger and less linear in its genealogies than Occidentalist common sense would assume (Asad 2003; Casanova 2006, 2011). (276)


Four decades after England and its overseas possessions finally synchronized their calendars with the rest of Euroamerica—but not before that synchronization was imagined as free from religious connotations—the French Revolution attempted to establish a new system of timekeeping entirely stripped of Christian influence: twelve months of three ten-day weeks, each day decimally divided into smaller and smaller units of time; an extra five-day period at the end of the year; Day 1 beginning on the fall equinox (Andrews 1931; Zerubavel 1977). This calendar barely survived a decade (1793–1805), with a brief revival by the Paris Commune in 1871. (277)


Awareness that the Western Christian calendar is only one of many coexisting chronological systems is hardly limited to the connected histories of early modernity. It is manifested in many parts of our world today. On the front pages of newspapers, for example. I’m writing this on the fall equinox: the Gregorian date of Wednesday, September 23, 2015. But if we look at today’s issue of Iran’s Kayhan(Figure 6), we see that it offers readers three different dating systems, printed one after the other at the right-hand side of the blue band running across the upper page. First is Cahâršanbe 1 Mehr 1394, a date in the Solar Hijrī calendar used in Iran and Afghanistan. Then is 9 Dhu al-Hijjah 1436, a date in the Islamic Hijrī calendar used throughout the Muslim world. Finally, as a third option, is the Gregorian September 23, 2015—written in Farsi. (280)


And lest these examples make it seem like only in “non-Western” nation-states is the supremacy of Gregorian hegemony challenged, consider the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper printed in a number of cities in Canada and the United States, including Chicago (Figure 8). A red box near the top of the page juxtaposes no less than four calendrical systems. The list begins, in the first line of text, with the 104th year of the Mínguó or Chinese Republican Calendar, counted from 1912 (the year the Chinese Republic was founded, a system still used in Taiwan—mainland China stopped using this calendar in 1949). This date is followed, as we also saw on the Liberty Times, with a mixed Chinese script and Arabic numerals presentation of the Gregorian year, month, day, and day of the week: 2015 年9月23日 星期三. The same reckoning is repeated in English in the second line (using the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals): WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2015. Finally, again like the Liberty Times, the third line presents time according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar (農曆): the Year of the Sheep (乙未年), the eighth month (八月), the eleventh day (十一日). (283)

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